Review by Karen An-hwei Lee
For over a decade, Sueyeun Juliette Lee has lovingly hand-stitched the chapbooks of Corollary Press, her ultrafine micropress in Pittsburgh. By definition, a corollary is a minor proposition ensuing from a proof. Lee’s press, however, is no mere footnote to a conceptual premise. A review of her catalog turns up luminaries such as Bhanu Kapil Rider, Pamela Lu, Craig Santos Perez, and Lynn Xu. On the frontlist of this treasure trove is Kiss the Stranger, a collaboration between Chicago poet Kristy Odelius and poet-critic Timothy Yu.
The seed for Kiss the Stranger originated from Lee herself, who encouraged a collaboration between Odelius and Yu. This 5” x 6” fruitlet of their endeavors encompasses historical time and personal memory, richly textured and wide-ranging -- occasionally reminiscent of a Medieval romance in orthography and allusion; other times, a dance of mysteries floating on multiple voices: a brother named Elizabeth, a woman of Christian Arab and Turkish descent named Safie, a deceased girl named Justine, letters from Agatha and Felix, and an unnamed first-person narrator in an elegant pas de deux of lyric choreography.
Her lovely guest was the subject of their name, the usual guitar at the feet of the old man. Floating to the tune of prison brick and neck scarves, serve a new heart to devastating pages of air. I find myself alone with nightingale urges wishing away the powder of reciprocity.
Of course, the names in Kiss the Stranger refer to characters in Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein. Introducing the long poem is the sailor Walton, headed to the North Pole. However, this chapbook is far from a Gothic derivative of the novel in poetic form. Rather, the allusive valences of Kiss the Stranger stand alone by the merit of their textual pleasures. Mirroring the structure of Shelley’s novel, Odelius and Yu include a first-person section written from the perspective of Victor Frankenstein’s monster:
My nerves press upon darkness
with considerable difficulty
By degrees I remember
with considerable difficulty
. . .
I felt operations in multiplicity
I remember degrees
The politics of identity, representation, and “otherness” surface quietly throughout the chapbook’s interwoven sensations and memories. The act of kissing a stranger, then, offers a quiet case against xenophobia while the overall effect of Kiss the Stranger defamiliarizes the quotidian, at once intimate yet estranging in playful turns of imagery: “A bicycle saint with a leaf-trimmed brain” (24). Indeed, the “strangeness” of existence in general – whether our sojourn as human denizens of this planet – or as the monster created by Frankenstein, a subject constructed ad hoc who tests the limits of agency and who uses language to express desire and alienation.
Though written collaboratively by two poets, the chapbook reads as a seamless, lyric duet rather than the workmanship of dual authors, reflecting the stylistic coherence of Kiss the Stranger as a whole. While navigating its delicate fugues, I was enthralled by the literary sophistication of this intricate long poem, its tender wells of melancholy and bright music waxing and waning in “sorrow and delight:”
This is the guitar a nightingale of the woods
The next morning was a simple air. Understanding was the subject of our conversation. She bestowed on him what he declined. This strain of sorrow and delight.
Kristy Oodles is a poet and Associate Professor of English at North Park University. She is the author of Bee Spit (Dancing Girl) and Strange Trades (Shearsman). She lives in Chicago, IL, where on any given day you can find her peeling clementines, picking up sticks, and hanging out with her small son, Caleb.
Timothy Yu is a professor of English and Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also the author of the critical study, Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental Asian American Poetry Since 1965, which won the Book Award in Literary Studies from the Association of Asian American Studies. His chapbook, Journey to the West, won the Vincent Chin Memorial Prize from Kundiman.
Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012), Ardor (Tupelo 2008), and In Medias Res (Sarabande 2004), winner of the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. A book of literary criticism, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora (Cambria, 2013), appears in the Cambria World Sinophone Series edited by Victor H. Mair, Chair of East Asian Languages & Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. Lee’s work appears in literary journals such as The American Poet, Poetry Magazine, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, and Columbia Poetry Review and was recognized by the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award. Recipient of an NEA Fellowship, Lee currently serves as Full Professor of English and Chair at a liberal arts college in greater Los Angeles. She holds an M.F.A. from the Program in Literary Arts at Brown University and a Ph.D. in British & American Literature from the University of California, Berkeley.